PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.1 (2003) 91-94
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An Internet Performance for Tthe Third Millennium
The Birth of the Christ Child in the Year 2000
The Plaintext Players are a group of experimental artists and writers who perform live textual improvisations on the Internet. 1 To celebrate the advent of the third millennium, the Plaintext Players performed The Birth of the Christ Child—a very old story in the newest of media. This divine comedy was created online as the Players logged on from wherever the individual members of the troupe found themselves, from California to New York to Munich, onto a specially-programmed online theatre. 2 Audience members in several countries logged on to watch the performance scroll down their own computer screens. A live audience gathered at the Literature House in Munich, Germany, where the Munich Media Forum sponsored a live projection of The Birth of the Christ Child onto a ten-foot by fourteen-foot screen. 3
The work of the Plaintext Players lies somewhere between poetry and theatre. This new genre of experimental, conceptual art mingles a high level of theory and a low level of ridiculousness. Further comedy is provided by the ambition of the Players, who confine themselves to the low-bandwidth medium of words alone, yet set a cosmic stage by simple verbal description, and use their word-puppets to enact a great drama.
Despite the fact that it consists of "only words," we think of our work as theatre—largely because it is an event-based performance. The Plaintext Players and the online audience gather together on the Internet at a certain time. The event may be great or it may be awful, but it's over in fifty minutes. The event happens in a theatre. People may not realize what a complicated apparatus our online theatre is. It is a creative work in itself, designed anew for the requirements of each performance. The theatre is divided into two areas, the audience and the stage. If you log on as a member of the audience, that is, as a regular character, you will see on your screen the text of the performance, as well as the remarks of other members of the audience. If you go onstage as one of the Plaintext Players, you will see the text of the performance as well as the instructions typed in by the online "digital director," who cues entrances and exits, and tells the Players when to begin and end each scene. [End Page 91]
One character has been programmed to hear neither the audience's remarks nor the director's commands, so that we have a relatively clean text to project for the real-life audience. 4 The real-life projection and audience is another clearly theatrical dimension of our work. While the absence of spectacle stretches the genre of traditional drama, the work of the Plaintext Players can be seen in a continuum with experimental performance art of the late twentieth century.
The poetic dimension of our work is also very important. Like drama, poetry is experienced as a time-based art form. The brevity of the individual Players' lines, the responsiveness of line to line, and above all, the complex rhythm of the developing text mark the work as an experimental form of poetry. Juxtaposition acquires a strange new importance. We cannot control the speed or the order in which lines sent by individual Players will be taken up and displayed by the server. This is because the order is determined by the traffic pattern on the Internet, as part of a phenomenon known as "lag." For most computer users, lag is a simple inconvenience. For the Plaintext Players, it is a key characteristic of the new medium, which we take up into our artistic practice. As a result of lag, it often happens that a line meant as a response to Line A shows up later as a seeming response...